The NHL lockout hit close to home last month when a former Beaver Valley Nitehawk and Rensselaer Polytechnic grad playing in Germany lost his job to NHL players.
Fruitvale native Jake Morissette suffered a hand injury just prior to extending his contract with the German professional hockey team Eispiraten Crimmitschau. Despite the broken hand, he was confident his contract would be renewed by the Bundesliga team, that is until Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers and Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues became available.
“I had a two-month contract with an extension point for Sept. 25, I think, and I broke my hand two days before that, then on the day of the extension they signed two guys from the NHL, so then I wasn’t extended,” said Morissette. “It was just unfortunate, the timing on everything with the lockout and the hand, it just didn’t work out.”
The NHL lockout created a sizeable migration to Europe since it began Sept. 16. Close to 200 NHL players have flocked to European and Russian teams, displacing those hockey players that would normally have a career playing in Europe.
“Here are two guys making seven figures annually taking this guy’s job,” said Nitehawks’ coach Terry Jones.
“I have been watching situations like this happen since the lockout began but now that it has hit home, I must speak out.”
Jones, who also played pro hockey in Germany in 1992-93, still has his former player’s back. Upon hearing the news, the J. L. Crowe teacher responded by writing a letter to the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) taking the “‘union” to task for its largely tacit approval of the practice.
“This is not a typical strike/lockout where workers are starving, and need to get another job to support families as they go through the process,” wrote Jones. “These are guys who are making millions of dollars who are replacing minor pros playing in the AHL and in Europe who barely eke out a living.”
The disparity in NHL contracts may be considerable, but it pales when compared to minor pro contracts. The minimum wage in the American Hockey League this year is $43,000 per annum and in European Leagues wages vary from a low of $30,000 up to about $100,000. The NHL minimum wage at the end of last season was $525,000 per year.
Morissette wasn’t aware that Jones wrote the letter until after the fact, but says he doesn’t necessarily blame Simmonds or Stewart.
“It’s tough from my point of view right now, but at the same time they are guys that want to play hockey too,” said Morissette. “But when they make that decision, they obviously don’t consider that it affects other people.”
Ironically, one month after Crimmitschau’s NHL signing coup, both Simmonds and Stewart fled Germany for the Czech Republic to play for the HC Liberec of the Czech Elite League. It’s typical for players to sign month-to-month contracts in European Leagues but Morissette says he has no plans on returning to the German team even if they asked him back once the NHL resumes.
While the lockout prevails, Jones suggests that NHL players should remain in North America and support the union and take an example from Kevin Bieksa who has worked hard raising money for charity, stopping in at minor hockey practices and even participating.
“The examples demonstrated by Simmonds, Stewart, Ovechkin and everyone else, and their agents are selfish, entitled and disgraceful,” wrote Jones in his letter. “All these players have no idea of the ramifications of their actions, nor do they obviously care . . . work in a soup kitchen, volunteer at a school, go back to your hometown and make a difference while you can.
“I have zero issues with the players in terms of their labour stand, but come on boys, we need more Bieksa’s to step up and use their time in a positive way to give back to their communities.”
The lockout for players like Simmonds and Stewart may be little more than a sight-seeing tour, a vacation with benefits, however, for players like Morissette it is an opportunity not lost but stolen, needlessly appropriated by a privileged hierarchy.
Still, the 26-year-old Morissette remains magnanimous.
“I’m different from those guys, I mostly still play because I still love to play. I don’t make a fortune like they do, so I can’t say what their thoughts would or should be.”